A new great game in Asia


U.S. President Barack Obama’s 10-day Asian tour and the consecutive summit meetings of the East Asian Summit (EAS), the Group of 20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) helped put the spotlight on Asia’s security challenges at a time when tensions between an increasingly ambitious China and its neighbors have spread all over the regional geopolitical landscape.

Obama significantly restricted his tour to Asia’s leading democracies — India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea — that circle China and are central to managing China’s rise. Yet he spent the whole of last year assiduously courting Beijing in the hope that he could make China a global partner on global issues ranging from climate change to trade and financial issues. The catchphrase coined by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in relation to China, “strategic reassurance,” actually signaled a U.S. intent to be more accommodative of China’s ambitions — a message reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she went out of her way to downgrade human rights during a visit to Beijing. Obama, for his part, declared that America’s “most important bilateral relationship in the world” is with China.

Now, with his China strategy falling apart, Obama is seeking to do exactly what his predecessor attempted — to line up partners and thereby build an insurance policy in case China’s rising power slides into arrogance.

The U.S. “hedge” strategy seeks to strengthen existing security alliances, build new strategic partnerships, expand U.S. involvement in regional forums, hold joint naval and other defense exercises, and build military-to-military interoperability with other nations, thereby constricting China’s opportunities for regional domination.

Other players on the grand chessboard of Asian geopolitics also are seeking to build new equations, as they concurrently pursue hedging, balancing and band-wagoning. A fast-rising Asia has become the defining fulcrum of global geopolitical change. Asian policies and challenges now help shape the international security and economic environments. Yet, major power shifts within Asia are challenging the continent’s own peace and stability. With the specter of power disequilibrium looming large in Asia, investments to help build strategic power stability has become imperative.

China’s lengthening shadow has prompted a number of Asian countries to start building security cooperation on a bilateral basis, thereby laying the groundwork for a potential web of interlocking strategic partnerships. These bilateral deals and partnerships, although not intended to contain China, represent a palpable shift in the Asian diplomatic landscape, with a new emphasis on mutually beneficial security cooperation and a quiet desire to positively influence China’s behavior so that it does not cross well-defined red lines or go against the self-touted gospel of its “peaceful rise.” But building genuine partnerships is a slow process because it demands major accommodation and adjustment on both sides. The U.S., for example, has worked hard in recent years to co-opt India in a “soft alliance” shorn of treaty obligations. Yet, despite a rapidly warming rapport between the two and Obama’s recent statement calling India the “cornerstone of America’s engagement in Asia,” conflicting U.S.-India expectations and interests often surface, even as the two countries get closer.

The U.S. is now courting Vietnam, and the two countries are even negotiating a civilian nuclear deal. Although thrust together by a shared concern over China, Vietnam and the U.S. are discovering that the Cold War legacy continues to weigh down their thinking to some extent.

Within the Vietnamese Communist Party, there are deep divisions over the country’s relations with the U.S. Even as Vietnam moves closer to the U.S. as a hedge against China’s muscular strategy, some in its ruling Communist Party fear that Washington remains committed to overthrowing the Vietnamese political system. After all, despite Burma’s strategic importance vis-a-vis China and Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house detention, the U.S. continues to enforce stringent sanctions against that country, with the aim of toppling its government. In the process — to the dislike and concern of its generals — Burma has become more dependent on China than ever before.

The U.S.-China relationship itself is likely to remain uneasy, but overt competition or confrontation suits neither side. For the U.S., China’s rising power actually helps validate American forward military deployments in the Asian theater. It also helps the U.S. to keep existing allies and find new ones. The China factor thus is coming handy to Washington to enlarge its strategic footprint in Asia. Still, the security thrust of America’s Asia policy is unlikely to change — maintenance of a balance of power.

While the U.S. is likely to remain a key factor in influencing Asia’s strategic landscape, the role of the major Asian powers will be no less important.

If China, India and Japan constitute a strategic triangle in Asia — a scalene triangle — with three unequal sides — with China representing the longest side, Side A, India Side B and Japan Side C, the sum of B plus C will always be greater than A. Not surprisingly, the fastest-growing relationship in Asia today is probably between Japan and India.

If this strategic triangle is turned into a strategic quadrangle with the addition of Russia, it will create the ultimate strategic nightmare for China that will box in that country from virtually all sides. Japan plus Russia plus India, with the U.S. lending a helpful hand, will extinguish not only any prospects of a Sino-centric Asia, but would amount to a strategic squeeze of China.

Yet, as underscored by recent developments over the first post-Cold War visit of a Russian leader to any of the four islands seized from Japan at the end of World War II, a Russian-Japanese rapprochement remains distant. The islands, part of the disputed Northern Territories (South Kurils in Russia), were captured when Japan was reeling under U.S. nuclear bombings and its surrender to the U.S. seemed imminent. Soviet troops launched a treacherous attack on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945 — the day the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on a second Japanese city.

This background shows that Asia’s power dynamics are likely to remain fluid, with new or shifting alliances and strengthened military capabilities continuing to challenge major equations.

The year of the tiger in Chinese astrology, for its part, has fittingly turned out to be the year China roared by ratcheting up tensions through escalating territorial feuds with neighbors stretching from Japan to India. In fact, 2010 will be remembered as the year Beijing undercut its own interests by kindling fears of an expansionist China and inadvertently helping the U.S. to come back to the center of the Asian stage.

Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan” (HarperCollins USA, 2010).